Holocaust survivor’s sunny outlook saved lives

Alice Herz-Sommer is the star of “The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life,” the 2014 Academy Award-winning short documentary.

The 38-minute biopic documentary directed by Malcolm Clarke, filmed by Kieran Crilly, edited by Carle Freed, and written by Clarke and Freed stars an 109-year-old Holocaust survivor that lives alone in a London flat.

“My world is music,” she says. “I’m not interested in anything else.”

That’s a good thing. As the film’s subtitle aptly says, music saved her life.

Born in 1903, Herz-Sommer, a Jew living in Prague, was the oldest known Holocaust survivor until she died last February at 110 years old. She survived because she was a musician, a classical pianist. When the German Nazis invaded Prague in 1939, music got her and others through the Holocaust.

“At any case, I played a lot at this time,” Sommer-Herz said. “And once, the woman who take care of our house said to me, ‘Mrs. Sommer, Mr. Herman,’ the name of this German man, ‘asked me, suddenly you didn’t play. He asked me why. He asked me whether you were already deported. He told me he loved your playing.'”

Because of her musical gifts, Herz-Sommer was stationed at Therensienstadt, a concentration camp used for German propaganda. There, she played more than 100 concerts, including all of Chopin’s “Etudes” from memory.

“I knew we could play,” said Herz-Sommer. “And when we can play, I thought it can’t be so terrible.”

Music became a conduit to a happier alternate lifetime.

“Even thinking about music makes me happy,” she says.

Herz-Sommer’s inspirational story gives us hope in horror.

“It depends on me whether life is good or not,” she says. “Not on life. On me. Everything is either good or bad. I look at the good side.”

She played piano until she died on February 23, 2014.

“The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life” was directed by Malcolm Clarke and won the 2014 Academy Award for documentary short. 

‘Bastille’: sieging the charts by storm

“Oh I feel overjoyed,” Bastille’s 25-year-old frontman Dan Smith sings in the UK band’s first debut album, “Bad Blood.” Although Smith sounds a bit more melancholy than overjoyed while singing his tracks, he should be feeling overjoyed right now.

Not only has Bastille’s “Bad Blood” tour sold out within minutes of its UK release, but their single “Pompeii” has been no. 1 on the UK Official Streaming Charts for at least seven consecutive weeks.  According to the UK iTunes charts, their album, “Bad Blood,” (which was released only in the UK on March 4 by Virgin Records) is selling at no. 7. “Oh I feel overjoyed/when you listen to my words,” Smith sings in Bastille’s single “Overjoyed.” Well, Mr. Smith, your wish is fulfilled. More than 22 million people have watched the music video for “Pompeii” on YouTube, listening to your words.

Smith, who’s been writing songs since he was 15,  says his songs aren’t overly autobiographical. Instead, the singer/songwriter follows in the tradition of Regina Spektor and Josh Ritter, American alternative indie folk singers known for their narrative styles, drawing from fiction or history for inspiration. Smith — who named the band after Bastille Day, the English term for the French holiday celebrating the storming of the Bastille during the French Revolution on July 14, 1789 — plays his part as a historian or singing bard.

His song “Daniel in the Den” chronicles the biblical story from the point-of-view of Daniel, who was trapped in the lion’s den. “Icarus” is based on the Greek myth where Icarus, the son of Daedalus, flew too close to the sun, melting his wax wings and falling to his death. “Pompeii” is about the fall of the Roman city from the point-of-view of its citizens. “How am I gonna be an optimist about this?” Smith repeats.

Whereas other English singer/songwriters wrote autobiographical and emotional, passionate songs about heartbreak, Smith’s songs are cold and passive, sounding a little detached, but no less addictive. Adele had “Set Fire to the Rain.” Bastille has “Things We Lost In the Fire.”

Like Adele, Smith has a high vocal range and a knack for songwriting, but the man behind the words is a mystery. In fact, Smith kept his music a secret until his songs were discovered:  “None of my friends ever knew. My family knew because they overheard it coming out of my room – these weird warbling noises,” he told The Independent. The elusive Smith literally masks his face and his wild, spiky black hair — first with a shapeless brown sack and then with a grotesque mask — in Bastille’s music video “Laura Palmer,” inspired by David Lynch’s television series “Twin Peaks,” one of his favorite telly shows.

Smith’s lyrics are beautiful and haunting. “There’s a hole in my soul/ I can’t fill it/ I can’t fill it,” Smith sings in “Flaws.” In the Abbey Road recording of the song, violins cry in the background, harmonizing with Smith’s choruses.

“The Weight of Living, Pt. 1” sounds like something out of the “Where the Wild Things Are” soundtrack. “Your Albatross/ shoot it down/ shoot it down/ When you just can’t shake/ The heavy weight of living,” Smith sings. You can almost hear Maurice Sendak’s words wash over you: “There are so many beautiful things in the world which I will have to leave when I die, but I’m ready, I’m ready, I’m ready.”

Smith’s company consists of Chris “Woody” Wood on drums, Will Farquarson on bass-guitar and Kyle Simmons on keyboard. But they aren’t like the British boy bands of One Direction or The Wanted. Wood, Farquarson and Simmons are content echoing the “ey-ey-ey-oh, ey-ohs” in the background of “Pompeii” or harmonizing to the “ay-ay-ay, ay-ay-ay, ay, ay, ays” in “Get Home,” rather than take turns with solos.

The lead singer, on the other hand, has reservations about being in the spotlight. “Kyle [Simmons] who plays keys in the band always takes the piss out of the fact that most of the stuff I have to do is my idea of hell, like putting myself out there and being in photos,” Smith says.

Well, Mr. Smith, it looks like you better get used to hell because your Bastille has stormed the British charts and started a revolution across the Atlantic. And as you know from your world history, revolution’s contagious.

Bastille’s debut album “Bad Blood,” which contains 13 tracks including their singles “Overjoyed,” “Flaws,” “Bad Blood,” “Pompeii” and “Laura Palmer,” is currently only available in the UK. Their 4-song EP, “The Haunt,” was released in the United States on May 28.  

From Harry to Haunted: Daniel Radcliffe stars in ‘The Woman in Black’

The trick to making a good horror film is to tease the audience — show the elongated shadows on the walls, play the creaks and moans in the woodwork. Fill in a creepy soundtrack; sudden jarring noises; a stupid but lovable and brave hero or heroine and the imagination will fill in the rest.

This is why director James Watkins’ new film “The Woman in Black” works. Based on Susan Hill’s 1983 novel, “The Woman in Black” follows single father Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe), a young, widowed lawyer who lost his wife (Sophie Stuckey) in childbirth four years ago. Kipps’ job sends him from London to Crythin Gifford to settle the paperwork of the late Dablow family of Eel Marsh House, when he discovers the secret behind the mysterious woman in black (Liz White).

Like any true Gryffindor, the Harry Potter star tries to overcomes his legacy as the boy-who-lived by confronting new ghosts head-on. Radcliffe looks vulnerable and sometimes child-like while wandering alone in the dark, dwarfed by the sinister crevices of the Eel Marsh House. Radcliffe’s big blue eyes and past tenure as the lovable Harry Potter adds to the audience’s sympathy when his character approaches a long darkened corridor or greets violent thumping noises behind closed doors.

But his tender scenes with his adorable, real-life godson, Misha Handley, who plays Radcliffe’s four-year-old son, Joseph Kipps, separates him from his wizard, silver screen counterpart. The scenes between Radcliffe and Handley are endearing and genuine, such as when Joseph presents Arthur with stick-figure drawings of the two (Radcliffe’s stick figure sports a prominent frown). While the film does play up the father/son relationship at times by reminding Radcliffe that he has a son to go home to and featuring the pale faces of other little girls and boys, the acting is believable, taking the film beyond the average cheap horror film and making it more comparable to Juan Antonio Bayona’s 2007 Spanish mystery thriller “The Orphanage” — a film which also features beautiful outdoor scenery, elaborate spooky interior house décor and children.

“The Woman in Black” shows how palpable death is among both the young and old — lingering in cobwebs, gravestones, shadows and the pale faces of the children and superstitious townspeople of Crythin Gifford. The new adaption of “The Woman in Black” is designed to keep you tense in your seats and your children close.

‘Tiger Country’ puts NHS behind bars

From Emily (Ruth Everett), the young novice hospital aide who cares too much and wants to save everyone to Vashti (Thusitha Jayasundera), the over-bearing, cold female surgeon that puts her career above love-life and has to be in charge of everything, “Tiger Country” is about a series of seemingly-stereotypical personalities working within the confines of London’s National Health Service. Yet Nina Raine’s play is written and directed so cleverly, one does not realize the richness of the characters and subtexts of the play until the very end.

Raine does this by creating short scenes full of sharp, honest dialogue that pokes at the very soul. From one scene to another, Raine smoothly transitions from commenting about the “women who fail at careers having children” to how doctor-work becoming little more than a series of lucky incidences and instinctive hunches. Her script and directing show that doctors are really the ones on the operating tables along with the patient they are operating on — as they have to either live with the consequences of their decisions and failures to save someone’s life, or kill their emotions so they don’t bathe with the guilt. The ruthless profession produces characters who are angry and bitter — jealous of another doctor’s superior command or drinking themselves to sleep.

Meanwhile, the splendid acting and characterization of “Tiger Country’s” cast really drives Raine’s points home. The medical staff are nasty, undermining each other for their own self-benefit under the guise of “teamwork” — where no one takes responsibility for their mistakes. Because there is no benefit in overworking — because there will always be patients and surgeries and cardiac arrests that keep taking and taking and taking despite doctors’ best efforts — NHS hospitals are usually short-staffed with never-ending waiting lists. Hospitals are full of people like Emily and Vashti — where their work environment changes them. Whereas both may have entered the profession waiting to make a difference, their former passions become just a job where slow, sloppy work will be enough to get by. Do we really want these people to take care of us? Should we really let these people play “god”?

While Raine’s play makes us question the identity of our caregivers, her work is also complimented by Lizzie Clachan’s design, Rick Fisher’s lighting design, Fergus O’Hare’s sound and Jane Gibson’s movement direction. Through all these elements, such as the music and the graphs of x-rays and ultrasounds on the walls, the audience is transported through the swinging doors and curtains of a hospital as the cast rushes to and fro from surgeries to cardiac arrests.

As we watch our physicians cope with the high-stress atmosphere, bone-weary tiredness and sicknesses that seem to rub off on them, we watch how the people who supposedly “fix” us break down. Raine’s play seems to make a political statement, showing how the NHS is a broken system, and that drains the life out of the most eager young aides and breaks the hearts of the most jaded professionals.

“Tiger Country” is written and directed by Nina Raine, and shown at the Hampstead Theatre in London.

Elementary, My Dear, Sherlock Holmes Is The Biggest Moocher

Who me? Robert Downey Jr. plays an inglorious bastard.

If there ever was an inglorious bastard, Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) fits the description. Using Dr. John Watson’s (Jude Law) dog as a test subject for his experiments, dragging his best friend into battle as he runs from the large boulder-like henchmen he just pissed off and shamelessly ruining his friend’s courtship with a lady, Holmes is that friend you all know and love: the moocher.

“Holmes, does your depravity know no bounds?” his friend Dr. Watson even asks him.

It's nice to have famous friends, but too bad Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) is a moocher.

Yet you can’t hate Sherlock Holmes, even as he is rummaging through your clothes because he had run out of clean closes to wear. You can’t hate Sherlock Holmes, even as he lands you in a night in jail, as your girlfriend bails you out the next morning. You can’t hate Sherlock Holmes as he purposefully leaves his gun in your hand, knowing that you will reluctantly follow him into danger.

Yes, you might get frustrated, angry and even despise the bastard who got you into trouble, but you can’t totally hate Holmes because you admire him. You respect the intellectual prowler and his impeccable power of observation. You value his logic and reasoning, despite his ability to uncannily rope you into his latest scheme, abusing your good intentions.

Hey, House and Wilson, no homo or anything...

Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law become the Dr. Gregory House (Hugh Laurie) and Dr. James Wilson (Robert Sean Leonard) from the television drama House M.D. of the big screen in Director Guy Ritchie’s latest released film Sherlock Holmes.

In additional to Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law’s budding bromance (as Holmes succeeds in making Watson his bitch), the fast-paced, action-packed thriller is filled with a bunch of other goodies.

The first few minutes of the film might as well have been a scene from Blizzard Entertainment’s hellish role-playing game Diablo as two guys two guys run through a mausoleum-type building, men in long hooded cloaks following their wake as a woman strapped to the alter awaits sacrifice.

The first rule of fight club is, you don't talk about fight club.

Downey’s Jr. narration of how to properly dispose a guy is reminiscent to the narration of David Fincher’s film Fight Club—dark and biting. The sequence of the fight scenes are quickly spiced with half second clips, and the original music from Hans Zimmer is superb.

Meanwhile, the beautifully filmed filth of London will have you hum Sweeny Todd’s “No Place Like London”: “There’s a whole in the world like a great black pit, and the vermin of the world inhabit it, and its morals aren’t worth what a pin can spit, and it goes by the name of London.”

Like anyone else fond of the television shows such as House, Bones, CSI, Numb3rs, and Criminal Minds, I love a good mystery. In this case, I loved how all the pieces fell in place —much like how all the scenes in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Bastards came together— as Holmes began to question his firm belief in logic with the case of Lord Blackwood’s (Mark Strong) resurrection from the grave.

Meanwhile, Holmes’ peculiar relationship with the Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), a petty criminal who loved to steal expensive jewelry, will have you questioning Holmes already promiscuous morals.

“In another life, Mr. Holmes, you would have made a excellent criminal,” Inspector Lestrade (Eddie Marsan) tells him.

A threesome, anyone?

Yet despite how close Holmes is to picking the lock for the sole purpose of stealing, he does not pick the locks out of moral ambivalence but intellectual curiosity. Holmes is attracted to Irene Adler, not only because she’s a pretty face who would most likely screw him over like one of John Keat’s “La Belle Sans Merci”s, but because she is a complex character.

As the film ends with hints of a sequel, the ingenious detective of Scotland Yard will guarantee a fun ride.